Films may stutter from prolonged strike

2007-12-10 19:53:39  China Daily      

LOS ANGELES - Indiana Jones, Capt. James T. Kirk and other movie heroes may have to toss off more ad-libbed wisecracks next year. By 2009, they could be positively tongue-tied if a strike by Hollywood writers drags on for months.

Unlike television, which felt an immediate impact as some programs shut down when writers halted work in November, big-screen movies have a longer lead time and can ride out the strike with scripts already in hand, at least for now.

Talks between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke down bitterly last week, diminishing any hope that a quick resolution would limit the impact on movie production to small ripples.

Shooting on a few big films X among them Johnny Depp's drama "Shantaram" and Tom Hanks and Ron Howard's "Angels & Demons," a prequel to "The Da Vinci Code" X has been postponed, with studio executives deciding it was wiser to wait than risk a script impasse without a writer on set to polish up a scene.

Other films due out in 2008 largely have forged ahead as planned, producers taking extra pains as the strike deadline approached to have screenplays as close to letter-perfect as possible, so filming could proceed in the writer's absence.

"I just thank God that I'm not involved with anything in production, because it would be agony to have to stand there and know you could fix something and not fix it," said Akiva Goldsman, who wrote "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels & Demons" screenplays and won an Academy Award for the script of Howard's "A Beautiful Mind."

"But that's what a lot of my brothers and sisters are doing right now. That's tough, because you spend years getting to a movie, and it's like, melodramatically, it's like watching someone you love wander out into traffic."

The key issue for writers, who say they have been shortchanged on DVD revenues, is compensation for programming on the Internet and other new distribution forms. If the strike lingers as long as the one in 1988, when writers walked off the job for five months, it could cause chaos for filming schedules, desperately needed reshoots for scenes that don't work and planning for films further down the road.

"For 2008, the studios are all fine. If anything, they've had too much product in release, so even if they're down a few projects as 2008 unfolds, they'll give themselves a little more breathing room at the box office," said Anne Thompson, deputy editor of Hollywood trade paper Variety. "It's 2009 that starts becoming the issue, especially big tentpole projects."

Studios might be left dusting off scripts that have languished on the shelves for years to keep the production pipeline flowing, and the quality of the finished product would inevitably suffer.

"I would expect that as last time, you will see some forgettable movies coming to theaters," said Kim Masters, an entertainment correspondent for National Public Radio. "I can't see how studio executives can feel really comfortable going forward with a script where rewrites may be needed, as they so often are."

Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," reuniting him with Harrison Ford and producer George Lucas for next summer's blockbuster sequel, has finished shooting, so presumably it won't be affected.

Yet even filmmakers of Spielberg and Lucas' caliber may want the luxury of last-minute reshoots to improve something that does not work in the editing room. If they needed to bring the cast back to reshoot something, they would be stuck with the words in the screenplay or letting the actors improvise.

In normal times, writers work with actors, directors and others to continually tweak dialogue and action.

"You want the original writer doing that," said Barry Josephson, producer of the current hit "Enchanted." "That voice is what compelled you to move forward with the project, that voice is what brought the director to the movie and the stars. So you want that writer."

Ad-libbing on set is common in Hollywood, particularly in comedy. But directors, especially those who are Writers Guild members, have to be very careful to avoid any coaching of actors that could be characterized as writing.

Hundreds of screenwriters, including directors such as Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up") and Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), have attached their names to a pledge on the Writers Guild Web site in which they vow to not write a single word "until all writers get a fair and reasonable deal."

The second name on that alphabetical list is J.J. Abrams, creator of "Lost" and the director of the new "Star Trek" flick, with a fresh cast playing Kirk, Spock and the other characters from the original 1960s sci-fi series.

Due out on Christmas Day, the "Trek" film began shooting in November and continues through March, without the on-set assistance of screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci.

Abrams is no slouch at writing himself, yet his hands are tied if he runs across something that sounded good on the page but not in front of the camera.

"J.J. Abrams, how does he not write?" Masters said. "I don't understand how a WGA writer can turn off the writing part of his brain. You've got people wedged between not wanting to have their work turn out bad and not wanting to undermine their cause."

Abrams' film is vital for Paramount Pictures, which is trying to revive the sci-fi franchise after 2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis" flopped and the last TV spinoff, "Enterprise," suffered early cancellation.

The picket line Monday outside Paramount took on a "Trek" theme, with guild members wearing T-shirts quoting a line from Spock: "Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

One strike member carried a sign reading "Beam us down some justice."